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Wildfires, Burning For Months, Devastate Vast Areas Of Australia

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Australia, the prime minister has announced a $1.4 billion initiative to help communities recover from the ongoing wildfires. Hundreds of these blazes continue to burn across the country with roughly half of them listed as out of control. They started several months ago and are expected to extend for several more months. The fires have burned acreage larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Sydney talking with those whose lives have been upended.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: About 100 miles south of Sydney, the Morton fire continues to rage in an area known as the Southern Highlands. Over the weekend, it destroyed thousands of acres and at least a dozen homes in Kangaroo Valley. Glyn and Jenny Stones aren't taking any chances. They're now camping at an agricultural fairgrounds along with their horses in the town of Berry.

GLYN STONES: So we have - we've got two very old horses, which we had to coax into a horse trailer.

BEAUBIEN: They've also brought three of their grandkids' horses here. Overall, the fairgrounds took in nearly 100 horses over this past weekend as people scrambled to get themselves and their animals out of the way of the advancing flames. Jenny Stones says she's never seen anything like this year's fire season.

JENNY STONES: We've been in Kangaroo Valley for nearly 30 years now, and you had the odd fire come through but nothing - the ferocity of the whole thing has just been unbelievable. Yeah.

BEAUBIEN: The couple used to run a kayaking adventure camping business in Kangaroo Valley. But Glyn Stones says the area where they used to bring guests to camp is now just a barren landscape of blackened tree trunks.

G STONES: The fire was so hot that the place looks like it's covered in sand, but it's actually ash.

BEAUBIEN: There's no green vegetation left at all. They say this fire season may push them into a forced retirement.

G STONES: It's not an attractive place to go and relax and have an adventure anymore.

BEAUBIEN: And the Stones are some of the lucky ones. Their house, their animals, their family all survived. More than two dozen people have died in the fire so far. The number of cattle and sheep killed is still being tallied, but the losses are expected to be enormous. And the death toll among wild animals is even worse. An ecologist at Sydney University estimates that nearly half a billion animals perished in the state of New South Wales alone.

(CROSSTALK)

BEAUBIEN: At the Kangaroo Valley Fire Station, David Smart hasn't slept in 48 hours nor has he been to his day job as a civil servant in weeks.

DAVID SMART: We're all volunteers. I think we've been working on this fire for over six weeks now.

BEAUBIEN: Smart, whom everyone calls Dusty, is one of several hundred volunteer firefighters in this small town. He says the nearby fire is so big that the crews can only try to minimize the damage from it. Without some significant rain, he says, there's no way they'll get control of it.

SMART: We've been working on it for six weeks, and every control line measure we've tried sort of failed, I suppose. Just - it's been - the conditions on Saturday were just extreme, no - uncontrollable essentially.

BEAUBIEN: Those extreme conditions from Saturday with temperatures well above 100 degrees, along with strong winds, have eased at the moment, but they're predicted to return later in the week.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kangaroo Valley, Australia.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTANT.LO'S "FEELINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.